Federal authorities are punishing the San Francisco-based lender for as many as 413 alleged violations of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, according to a statement Thursday from the Justice Department, which said the bank agreed to pay more than $4 million to compensate borrowers involved in unlawful repossessions spread over seven years. The bank’s regulator, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, also fined the company $20 million for a decade of transgressions, the agency said in a statement.
“Wells Fargo Bank unlawfully repossessed hundreds of servicemembers’ cars without the proper process, and the bank will now rightfully pay for its violations,” Bill Baer, the Justice Department’s No. 3 official, said in a statement. The department “is committed to protecting our country’s servicemembers as they continue to fight for our freedom.”
The enforcement actions against the bank follow a $185 million settlement over more than two million unauthorized accounts that may have been opened to meet sales goals. The matter has sparked weeks of sharp criticism, congressional hearings and the forfeit of tens of millions in bonuses for top executives.
Wells Fargo’s stock declined 1.5 percent to close at $44.37 after Bloomberg News reported on the car-seizure sanctions Thursday afternoon — at the same time that Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Stumpf answered questions in a House hearing on the accounts scandal.
Wells Fargo, which doesn’t admit or deny the allegations, is accused of engaging in “a pattern of unlawful repossessions” from 2008 to 2015 in the DOJ settlement, which still needs approval in federal court in Los Angeles. In most cases, firms must obtain court orders before seizing vehicles from soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who are delinquent on their loans. The investigation started when the bank took back a Ford Escape from a soldier getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan.
The Justice Department got a complaint that Wells Fargo grabbed the Ford from an Army National Guard soldier in North Carolina, according to court records and the department’s statement. The bank shed the vehicle in an auction before demanding $10,000 in an unpaid balance from the soldier — a situation that raised a red flag for a military lawyer helping with his debt counseling.
The OCC said the duration and frequency of violations contributed to its action, which also requires the bank to repair deficiencies in its compliance with the servicemembers law.
“In those instances where some servicemembers did not receive the appropriate benefits and protections, we did not live up to our commitment and we apologize,” Catherine Pulley, a spokeswoman for Wells Fargo, said in an e-mailed statement. She said the company has been notifying and compensating customers and has “enhanced our efforts to identify eligible service members.”
Shielding soldiers from financial stress has been a priority for lawmakers, and the Justice Department has recently stepped up enforcement actions against banks for taking assets illegally. Banco Santander SA’s U.S. unit agreed to pay $9 million last year over allegations that it improperly confiscated more than 1,000 vehicles from military members, the largest settlement ever obtained in a case involving repossessions of automobiles with delinquent loans.
Wells Fargo — which was the world’s most valuable bank before the account scandal hurt its stock price — has branches on eight U.S. military bases, including Fort Bliss in Texas, Fort Benning in Georgia, Fort Dix in New Jersey and Hill Air Force Base in Utah. On its website, the bank says it has “a history of making banking easier for our servicemen and servicewomen.”
The bank has previously been accused of not adhering to the military lending law, which Congress approved decades ago to protect soldiers from legal hassles while they’re on active duty. Wells Fargo agreed to compensate borrowers as one of five mortgage servicers sanctioned for improper home foreclosures, paying $28 million for so-called non-judicial foreclosures that didn’t pass through courts and $59 million for those handled in the judicial system, according to statements issued by the Justice Department last year. The bank didn’t admit or deny the allegations.
In the Santander case, the Justice Department was tipped off by the U.S. Army’s legal assistance program that vehicles might have been repossessed illegally. In one allegation, the bank was said to take a soldier’s car in the middle of the night after being told that he was at basic training. Santander didn’t admit or deny the department’s claims.
More recently, the Justice Department fined HSBC Holdings Plc $434,500 last month in a small case involving the improper repossessions of 75 cars. And in 2012, Capital One Financial Corp. agreed to pay $12 million over a wider range of allegations that also included improper vehicle seizures. The bank acknowledged that it might not have been in compliance with the law.
A frequent problem in investigations involving asset repossessions is that lenders don’t understand servicepeople’s eligibility for protections. While the Department of Defense maintains a database accessible to banks, studies by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that loan servicers often didn’t check military status. Thousands of people haven’t received proper benefits under the law and oversight by regulators “has been limited,” the GAO has said.